The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969

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Words of Trust

I am thinking of the events of the past couple of nights and I am also thinking about how one day old Chuang Tzu said,

Zhuangzi2Let me share with you something I have learned. In all human relationships, if there are two parties living close to one another, they may establish a degree of personal trust. However, if they are distant, they must use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be able to communicate effectively, without emotion, truthfully. When two parties are communicating, for both to be pleased they need to exaggerate some of the good points. To anger both parties, there must be some exaggeration of bad points. And yet, it is irresponsible to engage in exaggeration. When there is exaggeration, there can be no trust. When there is no trust the party who transmits the exaggeration might face some danger.

This is why there is a saying, “Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.” If you do that, you will probably find some justice.

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Sages and Dreams

In Buddhism, buddhas and bodhisattvas are held up as ideal models of human behavior. In Taoism, it is the sage.

Sagehood is the perfected state of being, a state like Buddhahood that is achievable through self-development. And also like Buddahood, sagehood is a way of seeing the world in its harmonious original nature. Sagehood is a the state of being one with all things.

The sage has many other characteristics, some of which are discussed in this passage from the so-called “inner chapters” of Chuang Tzu:

Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly.

One day Chu Chuai Tzu said to his teacher, Chang Wu Tzu, “I have heard Confucius say that a sage does not get involved in the world. A sage does not seek gain or try to avoid loss. A sage does not seek anything, and does not even cling to the Tao (the Way). A sage does not use words and when speaking has nothing to say. In this way, a sage is able to go far beyond this world of dust. Now, Confucius thinks these are empty and fancy words, yet I feel they are much like the mysterious Tao itself. What do you think?”

Chang Wu Tzu replied, “I think these words would confuse even the Yellow Emperor . . . The sage floats with the sun and moon and joins the universe, embracing it as one great whole. A sage has no use for distinctions and ignores social status. Ordinary men toil and struggle while the sage seems stubborn and dull-witted. To the sage a thousand years is one, the myriad beings of the universe are but one, forming a great whole.

“How do we know that loving life is not a delusion? How do we know that in fearing death we are not like someone who gets lost on the way home like a child?

“Lady Li was the child of a border guard who was taken prisoner by the Duke of Chin. When first captured, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she adjusted to her new surroundings and luxurious new life, she regretted her tears. How can we know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out and hunt. When dreaming we do not now we are dreaming. We may even dream of dreaming a dream. Only when we awaken do we know it was a dream. Only after our great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.

“And yet fools dream and think they are awake. They pretend to know what is going on, and distinguish between kings and slaves. How stupid! I think both you and Confucius are dreaming. Of course, I am dreaming, too. My words may seem like nonsense, but after ten thousand years, a sage may come along who can explain them and then it will seem like morning.”

It is said that the ancient sages of China traveled the country, sharing knowledge with everyone, never asking for anything in exchange. They established no institutions, religions, schools or temples. They did not bother to give their teachings a name, except to say that what they taught was consistent with the great Tao.

It is also said that these sages understood the nature of dreams and delusions and that they understood that delusions disappear while one sits quietly and recognizes the original nature.

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A Big Tree and a Butterfly

It’s been a while since we checked in with our old friend, Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher of ancient China. Chuang Tzu’s writings are collected in a book called Chuang Tzu, one of the classics of Chinese literature. He espoused a holistic approach to life, and lived in the fourth century BCE, the same time as Plato and Aristotle. To read some of the other stories and mentions of this sage I’ve posted, click on ‘Chuang Tzu’ in the tag cloud on the right sidebar.

Today, two short antidotes, the second one is perhaps the most famous Chuang Tzu story of all, but in the first, he advises us not to sweat the small stuff:

One day Hui said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a large tree, but its trunk is too big and knotty to be measured out for planks, and its branches are too bent for use with a compass or a square. If you put it in the middle of the road, no carpenter would look at it twice. Now your words are just as big and useless and everyone is unanimous in rejecting them.”

Chuang Tzu replied, “Have you ever watched a wildcat? It crouches down and waits for something to come along, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to fall into a trap and die in the net. Then there is the yak, as big as a cloud floating in the sky. It knows how to be big, but it does not know how to catch a rat. So you have a big tree but are troubled over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing Town or in Emptiness Field? Then you could walk around doing nothing by its side or go to sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life, indeed, nothing will ever harm it. If the tree is of no use, then how can it trouble you?”

James Legge, in his translation of Chuang Tzu, added this footnote: “To sleep in untroubled ease beneath a large, sheltering tree can be a memory of a lifetime also.”

Chuang Tzu was a government official in a small town. While his duties kept him busy, he enjoyed sneaking off every so often to loll away an afternoon lying beneath a nice shady tree.

ChuangTzu1He said, “One afternoon, I dreamed I was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly just flying about. I had a great deal of fun, doing whatever I pleased. I did not remember I was Chuang Tzu. I was aware only of my happiness as a butterfly. Suddenly I woke from the dream and found myself to be Chuang Tzu. I could not figure out if Chuang Tzu had dreamed he was a butterfly or if a butterfly was dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This we call ‘the transformation of things.’”

What Chuang Tzu means by “the transformation of things” is that with our ordinary mind we look at the world and perceive differences and distinctions between things. This way of seeing is a delusion that is not unlike a dream state. With awakening mind, we realize that differences and distinctions have no real foundation; they are impermanent, transitory.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

– Seng-ts’an, Verses on the Heart-Mind

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True Happiness Pt. 1

I’ve shared some the writings of Chuang Tzu (369—298 BCE) before. He was an early and influential Taoist philosophers. Also known as Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi, he worked as a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE,  and a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing.”

His basic writings are known simply as “Chuang Tzu,” and here is the beginning of Chapter 18 Kih Lo or “True Happiness” based on the translations by James Legge and Burton Watson.

chuang-tzu2
Chuang Tzu

Is there such a thing as true happiness to be found in the world or isn’t there? Is there some way to preserve your life or isn’t there? If so, what should you do, what should you rely on, avoid, stick by, follow, leave alone? In other words, what should you find happiness in, what should you hate?

The world honors wealth, fame, longevity, a good name. The world finds happiness in a life of ease, good food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, pleasant music. It looks down on poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. It finds bitter a life that knows no rest, a mouth hungry for good food, a body with no fine clothes, eyes that see no beautiful sights, ears that hear no sweet music. If people do not get these things they fret a great deal and are troubled with fears – isn’t it silly?

Now, those who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use – so concerned with external things. Famous people spend night and day worrying if they are skillful – indifferent to more important things. Birth is the beginning of a person’s suffering, and when there is longevity, people just become sillier, spending more time with worry than with living – what a great bitterness.

People of passion are regarded by the world as good, but neither their passion nor their goodness can keep them alive. I wonder if the goodness ascribed to them is really good or not. Perhaps it’s good – but not good enough to save their lives. Perhaps it’s no good – but still good enough to save the lives of others. Hence, it is said, if good advice isn’t listened to, sit still, give way, and do not wrangle. Tzu-hsu wrangled and destroyed his body. But if he hadn’t wrangled, he would not have acquired his fame. Was this goodness really goodness or was it not?

As to what ordinary people find happiness in – I don’t know whether this is really happiness or not. I see them in their pursuit of it, racing around as though they cannot stop – they will say they’re happy, or they’re not happy . . . In the end is there really happiness or isn’t there?

I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this. It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise. The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong. And yet doing nothing can determine it. Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way. Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace. Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life. Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere! Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction. So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done. But who among us can attain this inaction?

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